As Hero and The House of Flying Daggers readily attest, no one makes more beautiful films than Yimou Zhang. No one captures the intrinsic character of the Chinese people more indelibly as well; examine the evidence in his 1999 Not One Less (Yi ge dou bu neng shao)—a neo-realistic Chinese drama of high production value using numerous non-actors who play characters using their real names. Set primarily in a rural mountain village, a thirteen-year old girl illustrates the patient and grim determination habitually evident in the enduring culture that has steadily evolved over the past 4,000 years.
When the regular teacher Gao in a small rural school must leave for a month to care for his ailing mother, the village mayor selects young Wei Minzhi as his substitute. The thirteen-year old girl is ill prepared for teaching, but she can copy text with acceptable calligraphy and knows a song or two. So that becomes her assignment; she also can earn a 10 Yuan bonus (about $1.25) beyond her 50 Yuan monthly salary if she can retain all 28 remaining students during Gao's absence. It's pretty amazing to see what lengths Wei will go for such a small sum.
Her instructions are extremely simple. She's given one piece of chalk for each of the 26 instructional days to use for copying the day's lesson on the board and must have the same head count when Gao returns. In fact, maintaining the head count becomes Wei's sole focus (and the inspiration for the English title).
She's initially overwhelmed by her assignment—allowing the class to play without direction and then silently writing text on the board for students to copy before immediately waiting outside the classroom and blocking the door until the end of the day. One student proves problematic—Zhang Huike is disruptive and breaks precious chalk. However, when he drops out of school to earn money in the city, young Wei decides that she must travel to the city to bring him back. This is where she actually becomes a real teacher. Enlisting her students in real life problem solving, they figure out how much money she will need for bus fare and creatively come up with plans to earn it.
Soon enough Wei finds herself in the city, where she relentlessly pursues her lost student. Naïve and unsophisticated about urban life, Wei must rely on strangers, often asking them what she should do. The focal point becomes the TV station where a receptionist stubbornly refuses to bend the rules to grant Wei access to the station manager since the girl has no ID or reference letter from her school. Without a viable alternative, the girl persistently queries all passers-by if they are the station manager for a day and a half before the actual manager learns of her plight. The film really feels "real" during a TV interview, where the heroine absolutely freezes before the camera. Whether this is actually scripted or improvised on the spot is up for debate.
All ends well in this straightforward rural drama that depicts the effects of poverty on rural China, where the end notes describe the vast numbers of children who drop out of school yearly due to economic reasons. Not One Less contrasts the beauty of simple rural life with the vastly different urban landscape where the homeless sleep on plastic bus station seats, beg for food, or scour for leftover noodles. But primarily the film testifies to the courage of its heroine, an uncomplicated young girl determined to carry out her adult assigned duties without compromise. And this very much represents what you'll discover lies at the very core of Chinese values.